I had time to kill waiting for Ancillary Mercy to arrive, and I didn’t fancy another graphic novel or Mothstorm* immediately, so I dipped into my not-large-enough stash of books for something I’d not read in a long time, but had favourable memories of. This resulted in Bone Song, which was published in 2007… and which I believe I read quite close to publication. So it’s been a good long while (though not long enough that I forgot the ending) since I read it.
Half the reason I think I have such favourable memories of Bone Song is just how darned weird it is. The story is a fairly uninspired police procedural, you know the sort of thing: big conspiracy, honest cop from a tough background who has to get to the bottom of it, doesn’t know whom to trust, has to cut some corners and break some rules (and other people’s faces) to get results, but ultimately is a good, honest guy and not at all a nasty piece of work who just tortured someone. Even when set in an SFF backdrop, this isn’t particularly inspired. But the backdrop of Bone Song is a little bit more than just your average urban fantasy setting. It turns the dial up to eleven and really really goes for it, in absolutely every regard. Characters, places, cars, you name it – it’s all got a little bit weird and creepy. And I love it.
The book is set primarily in the city of Tristopolis, where the power station’s necrofusion generators are powered by the bones of the dead. And this pretty much sets the tone for the book’s aesthetic going forward. Even the colour schemes the author describes as parts of daily life in the city are twisted by this – a preponderance of blues and purples and silvers, overlaid with mercury rain, skulls and ouroboroi. The city’s inhabitants aren’t just living humans; there are deathwolves and wraiths and zombies ghouls and cat-lady nurses. The religions have a streak of unexplained witchcraft running through them, as well as the macabre – the protagonist went to an orphanage presided over by Sister Mary-Ann Styx, for goodness’ sake. The author has so obviously put so much care and attention into making even the tiniest things that little bit more necrotastic that the whole thing becomes slightly joyous. Even the names that aren’t obvious like Styx have a hint of it to them – Malfax Cortindo springs to mind – and there are things which don’t appear obviously gothic in and of themselves, but which somehow seem to add to the feel of the book, like the fact that the week is eighteen days and the day twenty-five hours. Meaney goes down to the point of describing the shapes of coins in his dedication to setting, as well as laying out the grand vistas like the Glass Plains. So you get this really beautiful and coherent sense of a world which, I suspect, had Meaney been less dedicated, would just have come across as silly. The amount of hyperbolic neo-gothic he’s playing with could so easily have slipped into the ridiculous, but it is precisely the amount to which he has concentrated it – filled every single detail and twisted every line – that makes it rooted and real to the reader. The world feels absolutely believable, and also absolutely the realistic sort of grim you want for this sort of crime story. Somehow, I get the exact same atmosphere from the quicksilver rain from a purple sky, the same misery and determination and quiet tension, that I would from clear rain from grey skies in a fictionalised New York. And while the plotting and characters of the book would never have it ranking top of anyone’s lists, the setting does go a long way to averaging that out, and, more importantly, to making the book both incredibly endearing and utterly memorable. Because I am intensely fond of it.
But, as I say, the characters and plotting are not the best, by anyone’s standards. Meaney’s protagonist, Donal Riordan, is too much of a cop stereotype to really appeal. He’s an excellent example of what he is – a cop from the streets, smarter than he looks but not book-smart, determined to solve the crimes and keep the people safe, but not afraid to break some rules – but what he is is hackneyed and a bit dull. And the characters surrounding him, for all their superficial, neo-gothic glamour, are much the same. The romance plot particularly lets things down, seemingly coming out of nowhere, with no build up and no… emotional investment. Meaney wanted a romance sub-plot, so he threw it in, and was none too fussed about how we go there. Given the care he has lavished on his world-building, this sloppiness is quite surprising. He does at least manage to summon a host of plausible, strong and diverse female characters, both foreground and background, but they’re not necessarily innovative even then. They’re good, because not enough SFF has that and I do own a feminist hat I like to don from time to time. But as characters go generally, they’re not that exciting.
Likewise, the plotting is nothing special. Nothing that happens really surprised me, nor would it surprise anyone who’s watched trashy police telly or read crime fiction ever. It’s not awful, not really worth any condemnation. But nor is it worthy of praise. He’s done a thing that many others have done, and done it perfectly successfully, but not really excelled at it in any way.
As I say, what makes the book shine is the setting, and it shines so hard that it does overpower the books other faults. It doesn’t balance them out, because they are still there and still obvious, but it makes the book so much about its glorious, beautiful, wonderful setting that that doesn’t matter anymore. And this opinion makes me officially a hypocrite, because it is the precise opposite of what I said about Dune. But it’s my ‘blog, an I can be a hypocrite on it if I want. I suspect the real difference is one of timing – Dune was too early for me, so by the time I read it, I’d already internalised all the things that it did as cool and new. Whereas Bone Song is cool and new. It messes with things and makes them interesting and unexpected, and above all it commits 100% to what it chooses to do, and so it does charm me into ignoring what it fails to do properly.
Bone Song is a endearing, memorable, neo-gothic extravaganza, and it is worth reading simply because I can’t think of anything else that does precisely what it does.
*I’m definitely not a massive chicken who is being slightly freaked out by the prospects of moths in this book. NOPE.